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13 Reasons why not (Head’s blog, June 2017)

Posted on 26 June 2017

Professor Tanya Byron has asked Heads to share their concerns about Netflix’s latest cult hit, 13 Reasons Why. I’ve steered clear of this so far to deny it any further publicity but now I have watched it in full and feel obliged to share with you my 13 reasons why not to watch this show.

  1. This programme, whatever its statements about awareness-raising glamorises suicide. The programme has all the polish, allure and compulsion of the most popular US High School dramas. Its heroes and heroines are beautiful, eloquent, slender and glamorous. Whatever our rational selves might say, they fit entirely into their genre and wrest entirely predictable generic reactions from us. We want those lives and the heightened version of reality they appear to offer.

 

  1. The last episode, the climax, which presents the suicide itself is graphic, frankly instructive in its detail and appalling. If one of the producer’s defence of this scene is to be believed, the scene is there to show that “Suicide should never be an option,” but as The New Yorker trenchantly points out, “it can apparently, be the whole point of a show”.

 

  1. The conceit is that the suicide victim Hannah Baker, has left a pile of J’accuse tapes which are to be heard individually by her friends who let her down. Through flashback and post-suicide voiceover, she is brought back to life. This blurs the lines between dead and alive. Therefore whatever the intention, the finality of suicide, the nothing-beyondness of it, the dreadful waste, the glaring absence is never really shown, or felt by the viewers. So the show both glamorises and minimises the effects of suicide.

 

  1. One of the (odder) defences from the writers is that it is not just the taboo of suicide that the series covers, since cyber bullying, rape, abuse and alcoholism are also explored, which stops us “as a society shying away from hard topics” Well, OK, but the exploration is (as we’d expect in this genre) unsubtle, trivialising and thin. Again I’m with The New Yorker on this. They denounce: “TV shows giving themselves license to shovel trauma at their audience while assuring their audience that it’s actually healthier this way.”

 

  1. The implausibility of the characters’ reactions to dreadful abuse or to being on the edge of existence is glaring.

 

  1. Parents in the series are woe-ful in both senses. Hannah’s mother in particular is poignantly played in her distress, but the parents’ lack of knowledge, never mind of understanding of their children feels like a dramatic device, rather than credible.

 

  1. Likewise the striking absence of siblings…

 

  1. If the aim was to get more people talking about the horrors of suicide, I doubt it’s worked. If the aim was to get people talking about the series, I’m quite sure it has. The team from Creators.co say this: “13 Reasons Why teaches us that when there are difficult issues in life we can’t just bury our heads in the sand. It’s better to confront these hard topics head on and start a conversation about them.” Fair enough, but while they pay lip service to the controversy this ‘handling of teen suicide’ has created, they can’t hide their glee in “the staggering success the program has enjoyed”.

 

  1. The caution at the opening of each episode offers some guidance, but it is inadequate. This series should be inaccessible to anyone under 18.

 

  1. Things may be very different in the States, but surely the portrayal of the School and the three members of staff we see including a hapless counsellor (who appears to double as a university advisor) is entirely unrealistic.

 

  1. The characters’ motivations are almost distastefully simplistic and often ludicrous. And everything seems distorted. In order to move to where the writers need their character to be, Hannah Baker is shown to feel sullied beyond all consolation by a list that has her in it as someone with the ‘best ass’ in the School.  Well, OK, this could be upsetting, but what about depicting some kickass resilience in such a situation?  Surely we shouldn’t norm such unlikely victimising and catastrophising of the trivial? Or to paraphrase Professor Tanya Byron here: “Stuff happens, get over it!” At other times almost unimaginable trauma seem to elicit muted and very thinly sketched response.

 

  1. The New Yorker and others object to the series on dramatic grounds: its 13 hours feel turgid, repetitive and long and I agree, but my concern too is in the dramatic power of its construction. It’s a powerful premise and the hook kept me interested against my better instincts through angsty cliff-hangers and the simple addictive pull of a “Why done it?”.

 

13. Did I mention the brewing of a teen mass murderer plot for one of the characters? Apparently the realisation of that story line (god help us) has been laid up for a possible series two. I fear that too will unravel with all the cheap thrills and ham-fisted sensitivity of the first series… This is a show driven entirely by commercial imperatives. It cares a great deal more about its viewing figures than its viewers. I am very happy to follow Professor Byron’s advice and preach against this tripe. Fortunately like The New Yorker, I also have faith in “the ability of teenagers to know bulls**t when they see it”.

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